The term “creamy” crops up in a lot of wine tastings. Primarily a reference to texture, it can tell you a lot about how and where a wine was made, whether you’re sipping crisp bubbles or a rich, lush Chardonnay.
Dan Amatuzzi, senior beverage director at Eataly, says creamy wines generally have “a round, soft and buttery or dairy-like texture. This characteristic comes from one of two places: either aging in oak barrels, which imparts vanilla, coconut, and buttery and velvety flavors; or from a more technical process called malolactic fermentation.”
Malolactic fermentation is the process where malic acid is converted to lactic acid. Amatuzzi compares it to starting with the sharp bite of a Granny Smith apple, and ending with something smooth and round like whole-fat milk or cream.
These sorts of wines can elicit visceral responses.
“To me, creamy is a feeling in the mouth after you taste a wine,” says Tanisha Townsend, wine educator and creator of Girl Meets Glass. “Think dairy, like actual cream or butter on the palate.”
Chardonnays from the south of Burgundy are often described this way, says Townsend, as are some Viogniers and Sémillons. Some Americans associate the term with Napa Chardonnays that get their big, buttery flavor profiles from malolactic fermentation.
The term takes on different connotations with sparkling wines.
“In still wines, it’s more of a mouthfeel and not necessarily a taste, whereas in sparkling wines, it can come from the taste of the actual yeast that the wine was aged with,” says Townsend.
May Matta-Aliah, an educational ambassador for Franciacorta, says creamy notes often correlate to quality sparkling wines. Top-shelf sparklers have fine, delicate bubbles, as opposed to large, aggressive ones.
“You can only achieve that ‘creaminess’ in a sparkling wine if that wine has been allowed to develop its effervescence over an extended period of time and under cool cellar conditions during its second fermentation,” says Matta-Aliah.
Traditional-method sparkling wines age a minimum of two years on their lees, or dead yeast cells.
“As the lees break down, they release certain compounds into the fermented wine,” says Matta-Aliah. “This interaction creates both a complexity in aroma and flavor compounds as well as enhancing the weight and texture of the wine.”
While the results might not be as dairy-like as in still wines, the flavors associated with lees aging are also rich.
“This exposure, usually over the course of years, imbues creamy notes and flavors often expressed in the form of freshly baked bread, croissants, brioche, confectionary and so on,” says Amatuzzi.